More than just talk

This week I read a novel by Craig Ferguson. No fahreals, like late night talk show host Craig Ferguson. I know! I was surprised too.

Now, I don’t watch the Late Late Show Craig Ferguson–for one, it’s on mad late–but I do follow him on Twitter and in these postmodern times, I think that counts. In any case, his particular fame (televised) is what made me so intrigued when I came across his book in the store (also I am weak and easily persuaded by celebrity.) Luckily for us all, the book has proven–like chocolate, cough drops and Star magazine–a good impulsive buy. Between the Bridge and the River is a pretty sweet novel.

To clarify – it’s not a sweet novel. I mean, not like “Aw, so sweet.” It’s actually pretty dark, NC-17 even, with the kind of choice descriptions that make you conscious of whether fellow commuters are reading over your shoulder. One gets the sense Ferguson, whose show is on CBS–the network of the elderly–saved up all the words he can’t say, topics he can’t broach and, well, nasty shit he would never dream of bringing up on television, and put it all into one book. Brutal crimes. Perverted sex stuff. Take that, elderly.But I’m simplifying. Between the Bridge and the Water is a lot more than an assemblage of perverse humor. The novel follows an ensemble cast of interlocking characters–some whose relationships prove important, others coincidental (think Crash)–but focuses on two stories: that of brothers Leon and Saul, and that of estranged friends Fraser and George. Both stories are journeys of sorts–Leon and Saul are veritable orphans who run away to become famous, Fraser is publicly disgraced and flees to America, George is diagnosed with cancer and leaves for Paris. Along the way they run into a collective series of situations or semi-dreams that manage to cover everything from religion to Hollywood to death to philosophy. And always with (generally dark) humor.

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“Europeans are lazy, study says”

There’s a reason they tell you to write what you know.

Tom Rachman was a Rome correspondent for the Associated Press and an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, all of which goes a long way towards explaining why his debut novel–a glimpse at the “topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters and editors of an English-language newspaper in Rome”–succeeds so well.

I picked up The Imperfectionists while killing time in Penn Station (damn you, Hudson News!!) “Spectacular,” screamed the cover; “magnificent,” “beguiling.” (Beguiling?) The back cover, too: filled with glowing endorsements.

It’s immediately obvious why not much space was warranted for any sort of Imperfectionists plot summary. Though the book’s various characters are related–all affiliated with the newspaper in question, which is only ever referred to as “the newspaper”–their stories are presented as vignettes, a dozen or so pages each for a handful of the paper’s employees, and even in one case (my favorite vignette) an elderly reader struggling to keep up with the news (on Feb. 18, 2007, she is reading an issue from April 1994). In between these vignettes are even briefer glimpses at the founding of the paper and its evolution from a frivolous collection of briefs into a publication with a real voice and reputation, and back to a budget-starved anachronism in the world of online journalism.

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A book on the internets, in hardcover

It was with a bit of nostalgia for my college days (where I majored in media theory) that I picked up Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus for this week. Were Clay and I friends, I might tell him he could have picked a less intimidating title, one that wouldn’t make people frown when I tell them what I’m reading. The name won’t scare off anyone who picked up Surplus for the author himself (or anyone who makes a habit of reading manifestos on the merits of new media), but it might scare off some readers who would otherwise be greatly served by hearing what Shirky has to say.

If you’ve got even a little inner media wonk, this is a truly fascinating book. If you don’t, or if you’re turned off by a title that includes the word “cognitive,” then just hang around me, as I’ve spent the better part of the last week describing Shirky’s central ideas to friends, most of whom have at least pretended to find them interesting. Without going into too much detail, the gist of Cognitive Surplus is this: Over the last 50 years, we’ve had a steady increase in free time, most of which we’ve spent watching television (oh, sweet television). It’s only in the last five or so years that we’ve seen the proliferation of media that doesn’t command passive viewership, but rather engagement. In the short termβ€”and for those people who still insist Twitter is about 140-character sandwich descriptionsβ€”this just means a lot of frivolity online. But it can also mean great things. If every person in the world has one hour of free time per day, the power of all that time combined is pretty enormous. And if each of those people spends that hour engaging/interacting/contributing instead of consuming, we get things like Wikipedia. Like Twitter-enabled political unrest. Like nonprofits soliciting donations from a worldwide fan base. Like In other words, it doesn’t all have to be about what you’re eating.There are many more elements to Shirky’s argument, and I’m running the risk of not doing it justice by simplifying it this much. But the central idea, or at least the one that I think would best serve the residual doubters of social mediaβ€”not just in terms of cultural importance, but as an agent of changeβ€”is that the way we interact now isn’t worse, it’s just different. Shirky gives plenty of examples, most of which I enjoyed enough as “Aha!” moments that I won’t give them away here. Instead, I’ll refer to a relevant though unrelated quote that’s encouraged me to make or embrace change in my own life (read: attempt using my stove): “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.”

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It’s about like, art and stuff

By Nightfall, which I’ve written about before and was sad to finish last night, is in many ways hugely different than Gilead. For one, it’s set in present-day Manhattan, and follows the travails of a rather well-off married couple, he an art dealer, she a magazine editor. So yes, a far cry from the spiritual musings of last week.

But in other ways, the books are surprisingly complementary. In Gilead, an older man questions the motives of his best friend’s younger son (himself middle-aged) who reappears in town after a long absence. In By Nightfall, the story picks up when Mizzy (short for “The Mistake”), younger brother of protagonist Peter Harris’ wife Rebecca, appears in the city, having “recovered” from a problem with addiction and looking for a job “in the arts.” Like the narrator of Gilead, Peter is distrustful of (and yet also enamored of) Mizzy. He simultaneously wants to improve him and be rid of him, and perhaps most importantly, he’s concernedβ€”obsessed, evenβ€”with what those conflicting emotions mean. (To clarify, the books are hugely different in many other ways, not least of which is Peter’s mild attraction to Mizzy).

Though I loved By Nightfall on several levelsβ€”writing, setting, dialogueβ€”the book’s true strength is its characters, who seem so effortlessly real that I keep expecting to run into one of them on the 4 train. Peter and Rebecca as the comfortable married couple, Mizzy as the wayward and frivolous 20-something, Bea (the Harris’ daughter) as the malcontent young female, whose rebellion takes the form of leaving her parents’ SoHo loft for a job in a Boston hotel bar. (Again, the connection with Gilead: What is one to make of their daughter fleeing New York for a mundane existence hundreds of miles away. And how does said flight reflect on one’s attempts at parenting?)It’s hard to decide what By Nightfall is the best portrait of: addiction, marriage, art, New York? All of the above, really. And that’s all I’ll say, both because I don’t want to give away any of the story, but also because there’s a lot of devil in these details. By Nightfall has a plot, of course, a good one at that, but the book is more than anything compelling because it seems real. Not Jersey Shore “real,” not even Intervention real. Real like when you surreptitiously eavesdrop on someone’s conversation. Real like watching a father and son fight at the supermarket. Real like going home. That is, if your home was a loft in SoHo.

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Enough about suicide already

So I’m in a bit of a funk this morning, which I’ll need to get past in short order as I’m soon headed to Penn State for a night of good old-fashioned state-school drinking. In any case, this morning I read about Mark Madoff, the elder son of disgraced financier (and current prison resident) Bernard Madoff. Mark committed suicide yesterday, undoubtedly due to the number of lawsuits pending against him and the rest of his family, and what I can only imagine have been years of criticisms and death threats against him for his alleged involvement in the Ponzi scheme. Which is particularly sad since it was both Mark and his brother who told authorities about the scheme as soon as they found out, thereby setting the stage for their own father’s 150-year prison sentence.

I guess it was only appropriate that a real-life tragedy would occur on the morning that I finished this week’s read, Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. I know what you’re thinking: If the Hugh Grant movie is any indication, About a Boy isn’t a sad story–it’s about a mildly bizarre 12-year-old who befriends an affable but clueless middle-aged guy who otherwise hates kids and meaningless social interaction (in other words, every Hugh Grant character ever). But if you’ll remember, the catalyst for the development of that relationship is the weird boy’s mother’s attempt to kill herself, which is discovered by Marcus (the boy) and Hugh Grant on their first day together. Indeed, much of About a Boy is really about life, and whether it’s worth living, and if so, why. This isn’t unprecedented territory for Hornby who, despite his reputation for writing generally humorous novels, actually uses a comedic voice to touch on fairly poignant issues: High Fidelity was about lost love; How to Be Good was about failed marriages; Juliet, Naked was about unfulfilled aspirations. And A Long Way Down was, well that one was pretty much entirely about suicide. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say the point of life, or lack thereof, is something Hornby has given a considerable amount of thought.Reading About A Boy–which I’ve owned for so long that the pages were yellowed–years after having seen the movie (which I’ve seen multiple times) was an interesting experience. Certainly I’ve read books that have become movies before, but I generally prefer to do it the other way around, where the book is my first impression of the story and I’m then free to judge the caliber of the cinematic adaptation. It’s more difficult to see the movie first; the sense of discovery that comes with reading is a bit lost, since you already know how everything turns out. Particularly with Nick Hornby, whose novels read so much like movies that much of the dialogue is exactly the same, it felt a little redundant. I will say that the movie version, which Hornby had a hand in, is pretty much perfection. The voices and qualities of the characters are near-identical, and the overall temperament of many of the scenes, which is some odd cross between existential crisis and mundane hilarity, is spot-on. More than once I would read a line in the book and remember fondly its delivery in the film.

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